If Peter Max had been a different sort of person, he might have been a brilliant art forger. He seems able to master any style, emulate any old or modern master.
But Max gained his fame and fortune in the 1960s with his original, stylized, colorful images that became pop symbols of that decade and, in a canny and prescient move on Max's part, were mass-marketed onto posters, watches, clocks. Name a high-volume commodity and the Max name was probably attached to it at some point.
He never really slowed down, even when he retreated with his family to the woods of New York and the beaches of Barbados during the '70s, substituting high-profile commercialism for a prodigious outpouring of large paintings. Since then, he has painted portraits of five presidents, a jumbo jet, the 1999 Woodstock stage, and has had art commissioned for the Olympics, Super Bowls, Grammy Awards, the World Series and the United Nations Earth Summit. That's the short list.
His fascination with popular culture and consumerism, and his commercial success, invite comparisons with another pop icon, the late Andy Warhol. But unlike Warhol, who was essentially a misanthrope, Max has always seemed driven by an insatiable enthusiasm for life. A wealthy man, he still relishes connecting with people, making dozens of personal appearances at galleries and special events and, closer to his heart, participating in fundraisers for a variety of causes.
He'll be in the area to do both this weekend.
Peter Max will be at Syd Entel Galleries in Safety Harbor on Friday and Saturday in conjunction with a show of his newest paintings. And on Friday morning, he'll sign a giant reproduction of one of them to kick off a fundraising campaign for Morton Plant Mease Foundation.
Max is donating the right to reproduce the painting, a bright red heart surrounded with swirls and dabs of color, as the graphic image on printed materials for the hospital's campaign.
That includes the giant vinyl wrap being unveiled on the new medical arts building at Mease Countryside Hospital to launch the campaign.
The wrap, really a movable mural measuring 30 by 50 feet, is a collaboration between the hospital's foundation and the Outdoor Arts Foundation, a not-for-profit organization formed two years ago by Jay Goulde with a mission to create privately funded outdoor art throughout the Tampa Bay area.
The connection with Mease came about because "Jay is my dear friend," Max said. "He asked and I said yes."
Max and Goulde first worked together in 2001 when Goulde persuaded the artist to paint a large fiberglass turtle for the Tampa Bay Tour of Turtles, which Goulde organized to benefit a number of charities. One of them was the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, whose program to save endangered sea turtles appealed to Max, an ardent animal-rights activist who estimates that he is involved in about 1,300 charities annually.
The gallery show will feature a new collection Max calls "Pop to Patriotism," paintings, drawings and a few limited-edition prints. The style and subject matter will be wide-ranging. The words he uses most often to describe his work are neo-fauve and abstract, and with his penchant for strong color and line, both are apt.
"I swim in abstraction and color," he says.
He "customizes" a painting if he's on hand during its purchase, as he will be this weekend, writing a message on the back of a canvas or drawing a sketch, a practice his loyal collectors love.
The art world has held Peter Max at arm's length for years, suspicious of his success, facile talent and protean output. For those same reasons, he cannot be dismissed.